Have you ever rushed to your fridge after hearing about the latest food recall, checking batch numbers and “best by” dates to make sure you’re in the clear?
If so, you’re not alone. In 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued recalls for more than 200 contaminated food items across the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in six Americans gets sick from consuming contaminated foods or beverages each year.
Some foods are more likely than others to contain germs that can make you sick, according to the CDC. These include raw and undercooked meat, chicken, and other poultry; and raw vegetables, grains, and fruits, including leafy greens, sprouts, and flour. The FDA regulates those foods, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) monitors animal products — such as eggs, cheese, and raw meat — that can carry other foodborne illnesses.
Protecting yourself and your family from contaminated-food diseases is particularly important if pregnant women, young children, adults older than 65, or people with a compromised immune system live in your home.
According to FoodSafety.gov, a clearinghouse for food safety information compiled by the FDA, the CDC, and other government agencies, salmonella and E. coli are among the most common foodborne diseases that cause illness and death, along with norovirus, Clostridium perfringens, campylobacter, and listeria.
Salmonella contamination in food is responsible for 1.35 million foodborne illnesses in the United States each year, sending an estimated 26,500 people to the hospital and causing hundreds of deaths, according to the CDC. This infection is often associated with poultry and eggs, but contamination can turn up in a variety of foods, including fruit, vegetables, beef, pork, and seafood. Symptoms typically include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps.
Meanwhile, E. coli can affect not only fruits and veggies that are eaten raw, but also water, soft cheeses made from raw milk, and undercooked ground beef, per the CDC. Symptoms of E.coli include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (which may be bloody), vomiting, and a fever (usually under 101 degrees F).
Since food poisoning can be fatal, the CDC recommends that you immediately see a doctor or healthcare provider if your symptoms include:
- Bloody stools
- A high fever (with a temperature higher than 102 degrees F)
- Frequent vomiting, which may cause dehydration
- Symptoms that could indicate dehydration, such as little or no urination, dry mouth and throat, or dizziness when standing
- Prolonged diarrhea (lasting more than three days)
These facts may be alarming to hear, but know that the food system in the United States is relatively safe, thanks to the Food Safety Initiative, which began in 1997, says Joan Salge Blake, RDN, a clinical professor in the department of health sciences at Boston University.
“This program coordinates the research, inspection, outbreak response, and educational activities of the various government agencies to safeguard our foods,” she says. And it helps alert the public if an outbreak arises, reducing the number of people who get sick.
“Consumers need to know about the risks, but they also need to know we have the safest food supply in the world,” Blake says.
Still, watch out for the following top contaminated-food culprits.